2022 Dallas Smythe Memorial Lecture

2022, Media + Information

SFU's School of Communication, in partnership with SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement and SFU Public Square, was pleased to present the 2022 Dallas Smythe Lecture, Platform regulation in Canada: Networked autonomy and networked sovereignty, featuring Canada Research Chair Sara Bannerman.

Communications law and policy, including platform regulation, is often taken as a neutral or technical arbiter serving justice and balancing the interests of conflicting groups. Are laws and policies neutral? Are laws and policies capable of “keeping up,” serving racial, gender and labour justice, and meeting the needs of people in the context of powerful internet companies, platforms and decision-making algorithms?

Governments and consumers, in some cases, have bought into the idea that algorithms are the new neutral arbiters, and platforms the new governors. Just as individual autonomy is now connected to technologies, the power of states, platforms and algorithms are tied together in a new set of powers, dependencies and relations. These relations are fortified by the expansion of tech lobbying and datified election campaigns—including in Canada. In a world of complex interconnectedness, what do autonomy and sovereignty look like? While platforms have tremendous and growing power, battles over platform regulation are not preordained.

Wed, 16 Mar 2022

Online event

About the Dallas Smythe Memorial Lecture

The Dallas Smythe Memorial Lecture has honoured critical scholars in the field of political economy of communications since 1993. Organized by SFU’s School of Communication, the lecture brings together faculty, students and the broader community to honour the work and research of Dallas Smythe, who taught at SFU from 1976 until he passed away in 1992.

Sara Bannerman

Sara Bannerman (she/her), Canada Research Chair in Communication Policy and Governance, is an associate professor of communication studies at McMaster University in Canada. She researches and teaches on communication policy and governance, including traditional forms of governance such as copyright, intellectual property, and privacy law; and the intersection of these with governance by code, technologies, and private entities. For example, she examines platform regulation and lobbying; the regulation of algorithmic recommender systems, privacy and datified election campaigning; privacy in the context of networked technologies, networked selves, and smart citiescrowdfunding culture, and copyright and access to knowledge.

Dr. Bannerman’s most recent book is Canadian Communication Policy and Law (Canadian Scholars, 2020), examining Canadian telecommunications policy, broadcasting policy, internet regulation, freedom of expression, censorship, defamation, privacy, government surveillance, intellectual property, etc. She has published two books on international copyright: International Copyright and Access to Knowledge (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and The Struggle for Canadian Copyright: Imperialism to Internationalism, 1842-1971 (UBC Press, 2013)—a history of Canadian international copyright. She has published in journals such as New Media & SocietyCommunication TheoryNew Political EconomyCanadian Journal of CommunicationFutures, and Information, Communication & Society.

Dr. Bannerman is a governing board member of the International Society for the Theory and History of Intellectual Property, vice-president of the Lambda Scholarship Foundation, a past vice-chair of the law section of the International Association for Media and Communication Research, and past co-chair of the Emerging Scholars section of the International Association for Media and Communication Research. She holds a bachelor of music from Queen’s University, and an MA (2004) and a PhD (2009) in communication studies from Carleton University. She directs McMaster's Communications Governance Observatory.


Event summary

Platform regulation in Canada: Networked autonomy and networked sovereignty — Dr. Sara Bannerman

By Kayla Hilstob, PhD Student, SFU's School of Communication

The Dallas Smythe Memorial Lecture honours a critical scholar whose work has made a mark on the political economy of communication, in the tradition of Dallas Smythe. In the 2022 Dallas Smythe Memorial Lecture, Dr. Sara Bannerman spoke about the problems of platforms in regulation, autonomy and sovereignty. She posed the question: what do battles over autonomy and sovereignty look like today?

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Dr. Enda Brophy, associate professor and graduate chair of SFU's School of Communication, welcomed the audience with a brief introduction to the life and work of Dallas Walker Smythe, who taught at SFU from 1976 until he passed away in 1992. Smythe is a globally recognized, founding figure in the field of political economy of communication. Brophy explained that Smythe's work is increasingly relevant, as his thesis on the audience commodity and analysis of cultural imperialism is being revised, expanded and contested for blindspots. During his career, Smythe was forced to return from the United States to Canada after being blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Despite this, his political convictions intensified over the course of his life. We live in a time where we need these political convictions more than ever, and can draw inspiration from Smythe’s work and political legacy.

Dr. Sara Bannerman began with her own remarks on Smythe's legacy and the discussion he sparked. She explained how his work and teaching were about much more than just preparing students for careers—rather, he was concerned with who they could be as people. He reminded them that while our lives are shaped by political, economic and media systems around us, we also have the ability to shape our futures.

Bannerman shared a personal experience in relation to this: as someone who grew up sheltered and in a media environment that never spoke of coming out, she said she assumed that she would never be seen for who she was. However, much has changed over the years: the media environment, ad industry, regulation, interpersonal social relations and more. Bannerman notes that it is people and advocates who changed all of that. This fact shapes who she is and how she looks at communications policy and law.

In her presentation, Bannerman asked, “How can we build on the work of Dallas Smythe in looking at some problems we are facing today: misinformation spread, election manipulation, hate speech, accumulation of data profiles, and more?” She noted that Smythe famously (and misguidedly) thought it was a mistake to focus on content, placing the most importance on economic functions that made us into consumers, and the fact that this means our time and attention are taken away from our own endeavours. He was concerned that the Canadian state was failing on policies to protect personal autonomy and state sovereignty.

Bannerman said that in order to fix these problems, the big question within the field of communication still remains: do we deal with regulating the content itself or the structures that produce the content?

Bannerman outlined some approaches within these two regulatory techniques. Structural approaches include things like net neutrality, requirements for Canadian content, antitrust and laws regarding competition, privacy, and intellectual property (IP). Bannerman noted that “to some extent these are all structural approaches, as they don’t deal with specific pieces of content.” Content-focused approaches can look like the promotion of what is considered “good” content through better discoverability, and the demotion of “bad” content through requiring platforms to take down hate speech.

Bannerman explained, “There is a misconception that structural approaches are more neutral, that they are there to create an even playing field between online and offline, whereas content-based approaches are seen as being open to bias or mistakes.” However, even structural approaches are not neutral. For example, laws around property and IP rights are driven by certain values and biases as well. “Every area of communications policy and law, both structural and content-based, has embedded multidimensional, intersecting injustices that have been part of history or present articulation of these laws, where for example property rights have always been disproportionately given to white people over people of colour and Indigenous peoples,” Bannerman said.

Bannerman outlined some of the tensions between these two approaches, namely the differentials in speed. Structural approaches can be too slow, whereas content-based strategies might be seen as too quick. For example, reforming copyright in the age of the internet took 15 years in Canada. Rights and protections for Indigenous knowledge and cultural expression have taken decades. Conversely, content moves fast. Twenty-four hours might not leave enough time to determine if something is hate speech, which was the time frame proposed in the now-dead Bill C-34 for platforms to remove hate speech.

Bannerman then moved into a discussion on questions of autonomy—big questions within the field of Canadian communications, in large part due to Smythe’s work on the dependency of Canadian communication on the United States. Complicating Smythe’s approach to Canada’s lack of autonomy, Bannerman explained that autonomy is networked. “The capacity to be autonomous does not come out of isolation, but through a set of relations that enable network autonomy, including past and present networks of which we are a part,” she said.

However, not all relations foster autonomy, and they can be restructured or disabled to compromise agency. This includes things like gender inequality and settler colonialism built into the legal and media systems. Bannerman thus suggests that the independent sovereign country that Smythe theorized may not have existed. I draw similar conclusions in my own work, where I explore the political economy of Canadian communication within the world system. My work aims to explain Canada as simultaneously hegemonic and dependent, problematizing Smythe’s framing of Canada as a colony of the U.S. towards more complex understandings of Canada within the world system.

Within the context of relational autonomy, Bannerman asked, “How might we begin to make reforms to bolster individual and collective autonomy?” Currently, regulatory laws are being shaped by lobbying. There was a dramatic increase in communications lobbying around 2015, especially from Amazon, in a range of departments, from tax and finance to security, industry and infrastructure. Through lobbying, platforms continue to pose themselves as solutions to some of the problems outlined in this talk. For example, Netflix positions themselves as a source of Canadian content investment. Facebook propagates the idea that they are assisting women who are being harassed online and are protectors of online privacy.

In this landscape of lobbying, especially by foreign corporations, what do autonomy and sovereignty look like? According to Bannerman, “regulation can be seen as liberating, with an appearance of objectivity that celebrates and caters to diversity, and doesn’t appear to discriminate.” However, she notes that this is a seductive idea, and we need to be cautious of viewing platforms as partners in governance. There are dangers to being optimistic in this kind of relational autonomy, as this practice “sets up data relations that make people and injustices invisible.” Bannerman pointed to the work of Nick Couldry and Ulises Mejias, who showed in their work on data colonialism that there is a new set of economic relations and structures being built and implemented based on extraction. At best, algorithmic governance can be liberating, but not emancipatory.

Bannerman ended her presentation with some cautious hope towards the future of platform regulation in Canada and prospects for better modes of digital relational autonomy. She noted that outcomes on platformization and algorithmic governance are not preordained. Lobbying doesn’t always succeed. She gave the example that Netflix avoided regulation until now, but it seems like that will soon change.

Other steps could be taken. For instance, terms of use could be made subject to negotiation with user communities. Mass surveillance could be brought to heel. Maybe through regulation and institutions, less addictive interfaces could be mandatory.

Bannerman explained that these changes would be historic. “Impossible things have happened in my lifetime,” she said. While these changes might seem impossible to enact, we have decades of critical scholarship in Canadian communication as a tradition to draw on as we look towards creating these impossible changes to build a better media ecosystem, and thus a better society, both here in Canada and around the world.